Seeking rare butterflies in the Keys



My respect for butterfly conservationists just shot up a thousand percent — especially those who identify and photograph these aerial jewels.

Tuesday, I tagged along as Jaret Daniels led a group of butterfly conservationists to Bahia Honda State Park and the National Key Deer Refuge in the Florida Keys. They were searching for the state-listed endangered Miami Blue butterfly as well as Bartram’s hairstreak and the Florida leafwing, two candidates for federal listing.

Armed with his butterfly net – which he uses with such a swift forehand you’d think it was a tennis

Jaret Daniels has found a larva of
the Miami blue butterfly on new
growth of a gray nickerbean.

racket – and many years of study, Jaret showed us the host plants in remnant habitats for these remarkable insects.

Jaret is an assistant director for research at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity in the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology and the Florida Museum of Natural History. He’s trying to save the Miami Blue butterfly by captive breeding and reintroducing it into the wild. It’s his idea to run this three-year workshop, teaching zoo and botanical garden curators about imperiled butterfly conservation and management. He won a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences so the participants are on full scholarships. They’ve met at the Toledo Zoo, in Gainesville, and from Fairchild, their training takes them to the Oregon Zoo and the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Hillary Burgess, who manages Fairchild’s butterfly garden, pine rockland and other collections, arranged for the group of 25 plus 10 faculty from other institutions to spend the week here. Sam Wright from the Center for Tropical Plant Conservation told them Monday about his work with the atala butterfly on Key Biscayne, where the whole community pitched in to plant coontie for that endangered butterfly. And Aerin Land from Everglades National Park explained how the Park is learning to manage its controlled burns in the pine rocklands to help save the Bartram’s hairstreak and the Florida leafwing.

A Cassius blue butterfly.

Midday Tuesday found more than 30 folks gingerly turning over thorny twigs of gray nickerbean, looking for Miami blue larvae. The nickerbean and balloon vine are the larval host plants for this tiny butterfly. It often is mistaken for the Cassius blue, but has a more vibrant blue color. Jaret netted a Cassius blue to show us the striations on its wings. Even spotting one of these takes some getting used to. They’re about the size of a fingernail. And they move in a jerky pattern, rather like skippers.

We climbed the berm that once held Flagler’s railroad tracks. The berm divides the southern end of the island, where the main colony of Miami Blue butterflies remains. When a storm comes off the ocean, it shelters the Florida Bay side and when a storm comes off the Bay, visa versa. Nickerbean, which has bright green compound leaves and thorns to beat the band, rambles over the sand and mixes with Melanthera and Spanish needles, flowers of which provide nectar for the three kinds of blue butterflies on this island. The weedy nickerbeans were damaged in the 2005 hurricanes, and the number of butterfly sightings dropped. However, they rebounded somewhat in recent years.  There may be in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 in the colony, although we didn’t succeed in finding one. We did see the Ceraunus blue, which is even tinier than the other blues. It was drinking from Sida aculeata. Some of us tried to photograph it.

Horace’s duskywing has a
wingspan of about an inch.

After lunch, we headed to Big Pine Key and the National Key Deer Refuge. Chad Anderson, a ranger there, said he had seen but a single Bartram’s Hairstreak since last fall, and that was the previous day. He pointed out pineland croton, Croton linearis, the delicate-looking host plant for the hairstreak and the leafwing. The caterpillars typically skeletonize the leaf tips on these plants so you can tell if they’ve been feeding in the ‘hood. With the disappearance of the pine rocklands, the butterflies have been dwindling to ever-scarcer numbers. The cold winter seems to have put a damper on butterfly activity, and yet the butterfly folks took that in stride. We did see and photograph one Horace’s duskywing, a skipper that held still for about a nanosecond, providing a small success for the day.